Skip links


PRSA vs. SPJ: How to Reconcile Competing Ethical Codes

Published on October 16, 2020, at 3:15 p.m.
by Bailey Broughton.

It can not be denied that journalists are integral partners in allowing public relations practitioners to achieve communication objectives for a client or organization. The media coverage that journalists provide to PR professionals in exchange for story material creates a mutually beneficial relationship that is cherished and valued by both parties involved.

Sometimes, however, journalists and public relations professionals approach a common goal very differently due to conflicting ethical codes that each individual is bound to in their profession, which can often cause inconsistent messaging and friction between the two professional groups. Since working with journalists is a significant part of public relations, it is very important that personnel know how to properly reconcile the PRSA and SPJ codes of ethics so that the two groups of communicators can continue their symbiotic relationship.

Disparities between journalists and public relations professionals become evident during crisis communications, when the respective values of informing the public and advocating for a client come head to head. After all, journalists are supposed to be objective while it is a PR practitioner’s job to advocate on behalf of their clients. Deaths of prominent figures, such as Kobe Bryant, often show the conflicting goals of journalists versus those of public relations professionals.

Dianne Bragg, associate professor of media law at The University of Alabama, issued a reminder that these two professions have vastly different, sometimes conflicting objectives.

“The conflict arises out of a difference in goals — advocacy versus news,” explained Bragg. “The most resonant SPJ value with most journalists is ‘Seek Truth and Report It.’”

Photo by Thomas Charters on Unsplash

This value does not always complement the PRSA Code of Ethics, which prioritizes advocacy and loyalty in addition to adhering to the “highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” Because journalists are typically objective, they do not share PR values of advocacy and loyalty.

Kobe Bryant’s death and the reckless abandon TMZ used while breaking the story is used as a relevant ethical case study for journalists to examine. However, this same kind of crisis can rock the boat on a state level, involving individuals who do not have the notoriety that Bryant did to justify the premature announcement of his death.

On Oct. 11, 2018, Lt. Brad Clark and his crew of Hanover County firefighters at station 6 were responding to a vehicular accident on I-295 as Hurricane Michael began to tear through central Virginia. While responding to this accident, the fire engine was tragically struck by an 18-wheeler that failed to yield and move over to accommodate the first responders. Several were injured, and Clark died on the scene. This death caught the state’s attention, and a fleet of public relations efforts were initiated to bring awareness to Virginia’s “Move Over” law with tactics including the creation of memorial license plates and bumper stickers to reach drivers at the point of action.

As the second anniversary of Clark’s death approached, the driver of the vehicle stood trial for reckless driving and involuntary manslaughter. He was found guilty on both counts on Sept. 30, 2020, according to ABC 8 News in Richmond.

This high-profile trial sparked the interest of residents across the state of Virginia, and an NBC 12 Richmond reporter named Karina Bolster took to informing in real time by live-tweeting the trial in all of its explicit detail.

Three of Clark’s daughters had avoided attending the trial because they did not want to hear the tragic intricacies, such as their father’s specific cause of death, his last words and photos from the scene of the accident. However, Bolster’s decision to live-tweet the hearing publicized these arguably intrusive details and exposed Clark’s family to this information against their wishes. Clark’s 16-year-old daughter and Move Over activist Brady Clark met Bolster with backlash.

“I don’t think you understand how absolutely invasive and vile it is for you to live-tweet during an ongoing court session about a dead man,” Clark said to Bolster. “This is sick. How dare you?”

Bolster responded with her apologies to the family, but justified her decision to live-tweet the trial under the SPJ value “Seek Truth and Report It.”

“My job is to inform the public about what is happening in this trial, especially for other first responders who weren’t able to make it there in person,” Bolster replied. “I’m trying to do the best job I can of covering this case that many Virginians know about … I’m trying to keep this trial as transparent as possible.”

Practitioners of public relations are trained to question such actions. PR professionals think of all of the audiences involved — the family who didn’t give their approval for the trial to be publicized, in particular. They believe that the media would do well to think about what is ethically sound and how it would appear to the public.

Questions have emerged about the ethicality of Bolster’s live-tweets and how PR fits into the equation. Certainly, Bolster was aiding the free flow of information to the public, but the rest of her governing SPJ ethical code differs greatly from the PRSA Code of Ethics.

From a journalist’s perspective, many would argue that while Bolster is effective in informing the public, she did not minimize harm to the family as per SPJ values. It is very important to distinguish public relations from journalism. While the two fields often work in tandem to each other’s benefit, their differing goals from truthful reporting to advocacy can conflict with each other in times of crises.

Suzanne Horsley,  associate professor of crisis communications at The University of Alabama and former volunteer for Disaster Response for the Red Cross, explained the complexity of media ethics, ultimately admitting that while Bolster’s live-tweeting may have been done in bad taste, she was not hurting the trial by doing so due to its public setting. Additionally, she was not breaking any organizational rules since personal tweets do not typically require editorial approval.

“Ultimately, (Bolster’s) job is to help the public understand why the driver was found guilty by sharing these details,” said Horsley. “Otherwise, people may have viewed the tragic event as a freak accident, not reckless driving.”

Bragg echoed this sentiment by explaining that the reporter was likely trying to put Clark in a sympathetic light rather than a fully objective one because of the impact the accident had on the Richmond community. However, such intrusive sharing on social media of graphic images and quotes confounds PR professionals because it doesn’t account for the feelings of the victim’s family, perhaps the most important audience from a PR perspective.

“What it boils down to is that the media is well within their rights to report on public information like that,” said Bragg, referring to Brad Clark’s accident. “However, what’s ethically right isn’t always what is legally allowed.”

So in a communications world that has two parties fighting to achieve sometimes conflicting goals, how can PR professionals and journalists reconcile their governing codes to ensure that the fields continue to have a functional relationship? How do PR professionals control rogue journalists who report the truth at all costs, sometimes at the expense of clients? Can journalists trust that the information they are getting from PR practitioners is accurate and honest?

Bragg and Horsley both agreed that the best way to manage the conflicting goals of PR and journalism as emerging professionals is to continue fostering healthy, mutually beneficial relationships with reporters and other members of the media.

“Nine times out of 10, if a PR professional has a transparent relationship with the reporter, they will listen if asked to delay certain news stories because they value the relationship,” said Horsley.

Bragg continued to emphasize the importance of knowing the reporters with whom PR professionals share information very intimately, especially their individual interpretation of the SPJ Code of ethics.

“If you know how they behave ethically and vice versa, you know what information can be shared and what must be kept confidential under the PRSA value of safeguarding confidences,” said Bragg. “Understanding their ethical code is integral to your relationship with each reporter, and can often prevent the publication of information that public relations practitioners consider intrusive.”

It is inevitable that two professions that are so dependent on one another will often be at odds ethically. Public relations professionals may make the mistake of assuming that the media follows the same advocacy model that they follow when communicating with the public. It is important to comprehend the different goals of each profession in order to better understand how journalism and PR complement one another, as well as to understand why journalists sometimes behave in a different ethical manner than PR professionals would.

The best way to get a comprehensive understanding of the vital differences between journalism and PR is to continue building strong, transparent relationships with members of the media. After all, communication is the only way to achieve mutual understanding and respect.

Return to top of page